Joe Locke's Love Affair with Language

Dan Bilawsky By

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On the surface it's not so easy to spot the common thread unifying the greater fabric of Joe Locke's work. Since arriving in New York City in 1981, and emerging as a notable leader on record in the early '90s, this much-vaunted vibraphonist has developed into a protean performer and composer. Duo sessions with pianists Frank Kimbrough and Kenny Barron, a collaboration with vocalist Kenny Washington, dates co-led with pianists David Hazeltine and Geoffrey Keezer, an album with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra, straight-ahead sounds, left-of-center excursions, and long form works all figure into his discography, making it all the more difficult to spot said common thread. But it's right there, sewn into the music in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the influence of language—poetry, literature, words, even a simple remark uttered in passing—on the very different medium of music.

For Locke, a metaphor can serve as muse, a turn of phrase can provide the DNA for new musical life, and a poem can be the key to unlocking the door to deeper meaning. And with the release of Love Is a Pendulum (Motéma Music, 2015)—perhaps the most personal and emotionally charged work that Locke has yet produced—that relationship between words and music is fully illuminated.

Love Is a Pendulum

Like a pendulum, the Barbara Sfraga poem that inspired this work slowly swung back and forth in Locke's mind, wearing a permanent groove into his psyche. And Locke has the author herself—a multifaceted writer-lyricist-vocalist who's worked with everybody from pianist Fred Hersch to vocalist Mark Murphy—to thank for it. "I've been friends with Barbara for a long time, and I bumped into her at the The Iridium," Locke recalls. "She gave me this little book called The Subway Series, poems of Barbara Sfraga. I said 'Thank you,' and I took it, and I had it by my nightstand. I started leafing through it one night, and this poem—'Love Is a Pendulum'—really got me."

It's a powerful poem that views love through five metaphorical lenses, each drawn at the outset of a new stanza and undergoing complete examination and dissection in the lines that follow. These metaphorical statements—"Love is a pendulum," "Love is the tide," "Love is perpetual motion," "Love is a planchette," and "Love is letting go"—would go on to serve as compasses for Locke during the album's lengthy development process. "It started gestating around 2010," Locke remembers. "I began with 'Love Is a Pendulum.' I wasn't trying to be programmatic, and I wasn't really thinking about the poem until I was partway into the A section of the composition. Then I said, 'Hmm, this is something I've never really played before—this harmonic sequence, these chords, these arpeggios.' I said, 'This is new to me,' and I just became aware then that her poem had been swimming around," he continues. "So I went back and read the poem and said, 'I want to make this into a suite.'"

The result—curious-sounding and gently probing in certain places, firm and aggressive in others—got the ball rolling, but it didn't define the project, as Locke rejected a one-size-fits-all approach in responding to each stanza. In the case of "Love Is the Tide," he was interested in taking a more programmatic, picturesque tack. "I was thinking about waves crashing and pouring and receding, and the power of that. In the poem, [Sfraga] says 'Love Is the Tide / A pumping, surging undertow that will take you down, pop you up / And drench you in its power.' And when I think about the emotional power around love, I think of the blues and the strength of the blues. So I wanted to have all of this undercurrent or activity—the undertow, if you will. But on top of it all, it's the blues." It comes through loud and clear in the steady, grooving flow that pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and drummer Terreon Gully lay down beneath Locke and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani's relatively simple melody line.

In both instances, as well as the suite's three other movements, Locke, his quartet mates, and selected guest artists bring Sfraga's wide-ranging reflections on love to life, balancing strength and sensitivity, stability and volatility, newness and repetition, and introspection and extraversion in the music. "Love Is a Planchette" seemingly levitates, as Theo Bleckmann's celestial vocals create a gentle halo supporting Locke's melodic musings, all the while emphasizing the need for a light touch if love is to be able to continually and freely move about; the conversational banter between Giuliani and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin that launches "Love Is Perpetual Motion," as well as the back-and-forth between Locke and steel pan virtuoso Victor Provost later on, are the very embodiment of that concept; and Locke and Giuliani take an appropriately reflective turn with "Love Is Letting Go."

Phrases Feed Creation

Though Locke takes inspiration from poetry, novels, and other forms of written and oral expression, his imagination seems to be most readily fired by short phrases, often heard almost at random. The song "Available in Blue," which Locke recorded with a quartet on Force of Four (Origin Records, 2008) and subsequently with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra on Wish Upon a Star (Motéma Music, 2012), is a good example. "It's a ballad; it's probably the simplest ballad I've ever written. And it's one of my best pieces," Locke contends. "I was in a clothing store, and there was a woman in front of me, and she was buying a sweater. I was waiting for my turn [at the register], and I heard the woman say, 'Is this available in blue?' And when she said that, all of a sudden, I don't know what I was thinking. It was almost like I misheard her, thinking she said, 'I'm available in blue.'" Locke continues:

And in my mind, in that moment, I wrote a novella about this woman's life. I went home and sat at the piano and already knew what the title of the song was—"Available in Blue"—and the song just came out. But the song would never have been written if I hadn't heard that woman say, "Is this available in blue?" And all I heard was "Available in Blue." It's about this woman who was a beautiful, sad woman who was looking and yearning for love, and she was available. But there was a sadness with her, so she was "Available in Blue." And that song was born just from hearing a phrase.

One of Locke's most recent compositions (it has yet to be recorded) offers another example: it was born of an epiphany experienced while watching Orphans, an Alan J. Paluka film about the pseudo-familial relationship that develops between an older criminal and two parentless brothers living a ramshackle existence. Albert Finney plays the world-wise criminal-turned-father figure, Matthew Modine the older, controlling brother, and Kevin Anderson his (somewhat) intellectually disabled sibling, who has shaped his worldview solely around what Modine's character has told him. Locke was especially struck by an episode in which Finney's character offers the younger brother a poignant explanation about his place in the cosmos. As Locke describes it: "So Finney says [something like], 'Ok. You see. Here. Right here on the map, you see. This is your house. You're at 620 Houser Street, in the city of Newark, in the state of New Jersey, in the United States, on the continent of North America, and you're safe and sound at the edge of the Milky Way.'" It was those last few words that got Locke's synapses firing: "I love the paradox there—'safe and sound at the edge of the Milky Way.' He's telling the kid where he lives. He's giving him this incredible gift by saying, 'Here's where you are.' There's some heartrending humanity in that phrase. There's something that makes me cry, just from uttering the phrase. And that's because it expresses the vulnerability that we all live under, that we all live in. And that was the inspiration for the song—'(Safe and Sound) At the Edge of the Milky Way.'"

Poetry, cinematic speech, misheard remarks, and chance encounters have all served as seeds of inspiration, but for Locke, the relationship between words and music doesn't end there. The story behind one of his best-known compositions, "Sword of Whispers," entwines the written word with a moving tribute to the late, legendary vocalist Jimmy Scott. One of Locke's favorite records in his youth was a Lionel Hampton big band recording: "On the record was this tune, with this female singer singing [Hampton's own song] 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool.' And I'd put the needle back and listen again and again." Locke can still rattle off the lyrics, which have been forever etched in his mind. "And I called Steve Davis, who lived in Rochester at the time, who was Coltrane's bassist on My Favorite Things," Locke continues. "I said, 'Steve, I can't stop listening to this female vocalist singing "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" on this Lionel Hampton record.' And he said, 'That's not a woman, that's Little Jimmy Scott from Cleveland!'" Locke found Scott's interpretation of that piece so affecting and powerful that it ultimately altered his very understanding of the tune. "Sometimes, I won't understand or like a song until I hear a certain singer sing it in a certain way. Then, all of a sudden, I understand what the lyric means. And that was the case with this song. The way that Jimmy would hang back on the beat [was incredible]. He'd be so far behind the beat that it would feel like he lost it...but he never did."

The story picks back up twenty years later: "The phone rings, and it's Jimmy Scott on the other end of the phone. And he says, 'I'd like you to come into the studio and do a couple things.' [He brought in] me, and [guitarist] Joe Beck, and [saxophonist David] 'Fathead' Newman. So I go to the studio and—I'm not [kidding], hand on the bible—I said, 'Mr. Scott, what would you like to do today?' And Jimmy looks at me, and he says, 'There's this old tune that I haven't done in a long time and I'd like to dust it off.' And he asks me if I've ever heard a song called 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool.'" Locke still gets chills thinking about that moment. "When he said that to me, I felt like somebody was putting me on, like there were cameras somewhere, and somebody was recording it. But it wasn't [a put on]. And I'll never forget that feeling of being in the studio for that tune. It was just me, and Joe Beck—playing alto guitar—and Jimmy. And I'm in the booth with the headphones on, and Jimmy's singing 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool,' looking at me through the glass like he's singing just for me," Locke says, in a state of awe. "It was a red-letter day."
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